Published in Now! Jakarta, September 2010


Solo, Central Java

Solo, my favourite Javanese metropolis, is being beautified to within an inch of its life — with gaily painted planter boxes and ornamental street lamps and gaudy new ‘Cina Lawang’ Ng’jreng’ colour schemes — much like the rest of East and Central Java. If you want to see any of ‘Mooi Java’ outside the walls of the palaces you better go soon!
Last month I was invited to the 100th anniversary of the Sriwedari theatre for Wayang Wong performances in the middle of the people’s amusement park, so I jumped at the opportunity to head back.
For me Central Java is all about Hindu Temples. During last month’s  trip I visited one temple, Candi Sajiwan, ‘under construction’ (restoration), near Candi Prambanan, and also the recently re-consecrated Candi Cetho, Java’s most magical mystical temple, on the slopes of Mt. Lawu, east of Solo.
By extraordinary co-incidence it was also the week of the Jumenengan Paku Buwono XIII Hangabehi’s Coronation Anniversary ceremony at my favourite palace, the Kraton Kasunanan. In just three days I managed to see a constellation of beauty, interspersed with frequent visits to the city’s famous soto and nasi  Iiwet food stalls.
In a way the whole trip was very “Eat, Pray, Love” (“Eat, Pay, Leave” as it’s called in Bali) because my heart goes Boom-ba-di-boom whenever I get neat the city limits of Solo, it’s fabulous food and it’s ancient rituals, palaces and temples.


The scenic road from Karanganyar to Candi Cetho.

The progressive bupati (mayor) of Karanganyar, here seen promoting a local restaurant from a roadside billboard.

6th July 2010, to Candi Cetho via Karanganyar, the best kept secret in Central Java
We rise early and leave our lovely Art-Deco hotel — the Roemahkoe, in the old batik production district called Laweyan — at 6 a.m. so as to avoid the traffic, and so to have enough time for some Javanese breakfast at a friend’s house in Karanganyar.
Karanganyar is approached by the following a series of billboards of the fetching lady Mayor of Karanganyar — in a sparkling powder-blue  ‘Showgirl-krudung’ — pointing the way towards various regional attractions such as the Rice Husking Factory and the valley of cabbages called agro-tourism.
My Karanganyar friend has a rented bungalow in a delightfully leafy suburb of the town where Javanese joglo house meet the rice-fields in a harmonious ‘melt’.

The 14th century Candi Cetho Hindu Temple complex.

We have a Central Javanese meal at a roadside ‘resto’ called ‘Rumah Makan Bu Perkis’ on the Eastern outskirts of the town.
From there we speed up the hill — to beat the morning mists that routinely descend on the mountain temples (Candi Cetho and its sister temple Sukuh) — and arrive just in time to witness the last pass of a motorized swiper tidying the lower grassy terraces of the temple.
The candi and indeed the surroundings have mercifully been spared the beautification programmes.
This morning the extraordinarily ancient Javanese-looking temple — is a picture of pristine verdant loveliness. It is, in fact, a 15th century marvel and the last temple built during Java’s almost 1000 year Hindu Era.
The temple’s exquisite uppermost terrace now has a visitor’s book in the drawer of a parked desk and a jar of holy water (sealed) — signs that the last year’s Hindu Balinese ‘makeover’ has staying power.


A young Balinese with offerings at Candi Cetho.

•    •    •

In the evening I go to the theatre and hang out with my old buddies from ISI (Solo’s dance academy) and the Mitra Bharata group of dancing socialites from Jakarta.


A Mangkunegaran Palace Bedoyo dancer at the Sriwedari 100th Anniversary performance, Solo.

Jakarta socialite Astari backstage at the Sriwedari Theatre.


I witness a poignant moment — just after a line of Bedoyo dancers (from the Mangkunegaran Palace) files through the dressing room — as the troupe’s patron, 82 year old Madam Nani Soedarsono (a former minister in a Soeharto era cabinet) appears and lends her hands to be laid upon the head of troupe leader Mathius in Krishna costume. It is a ‘nyungkem’ gesture that radiates love. Oh Solo mio.
The evening’s dance spectacle is riveting — the costumes and choreography (some by Mangkunegaran Prince Gusti Heru) are inspired.


The Bedoyo Ketawang dancers in front of the sultan.

8th July, 2010: To the Kraton for the Anniversary of Paku Buwono XIII Hangabehi’s Coronation
There is nothing in Indonesia quite so other-worldly and ancient as entering the Susuhunan Kraton on this day — it is foreboding (so strict the protocol and elegant the courtiers) and so gobsmackingly gorgeous.


Courtiers seat on the marble floor of the Pendopo Agung.

The inner Penataran Agung court is alive with groups of courtiers as we enter. The palace honour guards are going through their paces and the VIPs are taking their places on the antique Dutch colonial chairs. Suddenly the crowds part and the palace paparazzi shuffle: popular singer Syahrini and her entourage are entering the stadium, sewn tight into opalescent show girl kebayas (see photo this page) — they are a vision of loveliness.
The highlight of the precedings is the ethereal Bedoyo Ketawang dance performance in front of Sri Susuhunan and all the royal family members sitting cross-legged on the Pendopo Agung pavilion’s marble floor. The ritual is no less magical and mystical this year even though the Susuhunan is chewing gum. My companion also noticed that more than half of the VIPs spend half of the performance on their Blackberries!


Syahrini (second from the right) and family members enter the pavilion at the kraton

A cluster of palace groupies.

•    •    •

As we file out of the stately northern gate (photo below) I reflect on the three hours we have just spent in the medieval-meets-metro-sexual atmosphere of this most splendid of palaces.
In fact, apart from the chewing gum and the Blackberries, the only jarring incident in an otherwise seamless series of ceremonies and muted millings occurred when a posse of Malaysian royals in their distinctive St. John’s ambulance outfits strode into the pavilion — disregarding the protocol which demands that all must be in the lotus position on the ground when the Susuhunan takes his seat — and presented a Sheriff of Nottingham-style gold necklace to His Majesty.


Courtiers leaving the kraton after the Jumenengan ceremonies.

One ancient courtier tried to block their passage — prompting a diplomatic incident during which the Malaysian dignitaries glared in a most un-Javanese way — but the rare incursion into a 500 year old ritual was allowed to proceed.
This year the Goddess of the South Seas did not appear in green spirit form, as she has in previous years, perhaps as a result of these slips in court decorum.
The palace priest might now need to beef up the offerings to compensate, I fear.


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